Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bush and Joshua

My friend's family had to move last September because the owner of the decent-sized home they were renting decided to return to it after being foreclosed on his larger home. Instead of seeking a similar-sized home, however, my friend and his wife decided to downsize.

When I asked my friend's son, Joshua, why they had moved to a smaller two-bedroom apartment, he replied: "Oh, because we're bracing for recession." Before I could ask him if he knew what that meant, he said: "That means we're saving money."

It would have been a fairly unremarkable answer if not for Joshua's age. He is only about five and a half years old, having just started kindergarten at Coyote Creek in San Ramon. But his astute reply raises many questions that everyone, especially our politicians and business leaders, must answer.

For instance, why can't over-educated political and business leaders in Washington DC and Wall Street -- who are ten times older than Joshua -- understand the concepts of sacrifice, delayed gratification, and living within one's means?

Perhaps it is because, as F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, the rich are different from you and me. The prime exhibit is John Thain, the newly ousted Merrill Lynch CEO, who, as the San Francisco Chronicle editorial noted today, "when he wasn't purchasing $1,405 trash cans for his own office or handing out between $3 billion and $4 billion in bonuses to his own staff, he was watching the company lose $15 billion during the last quarter of 2008 while he accepted $45 billion in taxpayer money."

How can Thain be so mind-numbingly clueless as to spend an extra $35,000 for a "commode" (a toilet!!!) when his company was just bailed out by taxpayer money?

Why can't the U.S. government or Bank of America shareholders (who acquired Merrill) reclaim the $4 billion Thain doled out as bonuses to Merrill's staffers far in advance of regular bonus time when they turned in a performance that can only be termed "miserable" if one is being merciful with words?

President Obama, what are you planning to do to curb these greedy, selfish, abusive and illegal practices on Wall Street?

I just find it absolutely infuriating that while honest, hard-working, regular people are losing their homes and their jobs, while the country is facing what is possibly another Great Depression, while our soldiers are fighting, killing and dying abroad to defend their vision of America, people like Bernie Madoff (the Ponzi schemer) and Dick Fuld (of the bankrupt Lehman Brothers) are shamelessly and fraudulently transferring their assets to their relatives in order to avoid paying their victims and their creditors, right under the supposedly watchful eye of authorities.

That is why last January 15, less than a week before President Obama's inauguration, I joined a few hundred protesters led by the Greenlining Institute, NaFFAA R8, the Mabuhay Alliance and other community-based organizations in marching from the Bank of America HQ on California Street to the Federal Reserve Bank office on Market Street to protest the Bush Administration's bailout of the banking industry, which so far has received over $300 billion of taxpayer money but has yet to extend commensurate assistance to the folks on Main Street who are really hurting.

Joining that protest was cathartic. It was also my goodbye "kiss my behind" to the Bush Administration which, unfortunately, will be able to avoid the brunt of the problems when the eye of the storm finally hits because, according to many economists, the worst is yet to come.

But what has Bush wrought to deserve our wrath? Well, forget about the wars, the Katrina monumental ineptitude and other Constitutional violations and just stick to basics: Bush cleaned us out of our cash.

As Newsweek Editor Fareed Zakaria pointed out last week: "Remember the Bush tax cuts? In 2000, the Clinton administration had almost balanced the federal budget and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office was projecting that over the next 10 years the United States would have budget surpluses that would add up to $5.6 trillion. By the spring of 2002, two-thirds of that projected surplus had evaporated and the rest disappeared soon thereafter. It was the most profoundly un-conservative act of Bush's presidency. Rather than pay down debt and save in the good times for the inevitable bad times, Bush squandered it all so that all of us -- particularly high income earners -- could indulge in a bit more consumption."

Like consumption of more expensive commodes. And we wonder why our economy is in the toilet.

This brings me back to Joshua.

My friend told me that while driving home one day from a children's party, Joshua asked him: "Dad, when the recession is over, can we move to a home with a yard where we can all play again?" My friend looked at his son and said, "Let's hope so."

For everyone's sake, let's all hope that Joshua and others like him do not get to wait too long.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Together with more than a million people in Washington DC and billions more around the world, I watched Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the US on January 20, 2009. It was a thrilling historical moment which imbued in me a sense of American-ness that I had rarely felt before.

When I am asked who my ancestors are, I readily answer Lapu-Lapu, Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Gabriela Silang and other Philippine heroes. But now this son of a Kenyan foreign student father and a mother from Kansas who lived in Indonesia is telling me to remember that “our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.” Our Founding Fathers?

Barack is telling me and every immigrant who became a naturalized US citizen and every US-born offspring of parents who immigrated from a distant land that while we have our own ethnic ancestors, "the father of our nation", George Washington, is our common ancestor.

Barack is telling me that while we have our separate ethnic histories, we should ingrain in our collective consciousness our common history that “in the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: "Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it."

But President Obama, we come from so many cultures, religions, languages and beliefs, how can we ever hope to be really united? We are too fragmented, with too many ethnic and racial hatreds to overcome.

Barack tells us that “our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself...”

The “lines of tribe shall soon dissolve”? Is this what Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned as the “mountaintop” where people would one day be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”? Is this our collective dream?

It pains me to hear devout church-going Filipino Catholics whisper to me even now that Obama is a Muslim who will destroy this country. It pains me to still read venomous emails from Filipino Republicans who supported John McCain and Sarah Palin predicting that President Obama will surely fail when they are really hoping that he will so that they can be vindicated in their votes. “I told you so” they are ready to crow.

Millions of people are losing their jobs and their homes and their health care benefits. The US is mired in a recession and on the throes of a global depression. Can't they understand that it is in all our interests to make sure that President Obama succeeds? Their old bigoted racial fears and attitudes don’t apply anymore. As Barack points out us in his speech, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”

Many of these Filipinos joined the Republican Party because they believed that it was the party that valued work and not welfare and would be more prudent in taking care of our economy. But in the last eight years under GOP President George W. Bush, the US went from a $495-Billion surplus he inherited from Democratic President Bill Clinton to a $1.2-Trillion deficit which he stuck us with. They should realize that “the ground has shifted beneath them.”

These hard-working Filipino Republicans should appreciate Barack’s reminder that “our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.”

Barack is telling us that among these "risk-takers" are all the immigrants who “packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.”

When 9/11 happened, President George W. Bush told Americans to go shopping. In contrast, Barack tells us that “in this winter of our hardship”, we have to all work hard and all sacrifice together, like George Washington and “our ancestors” did, to “brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

President Obama, my family and my community pledge to you that “yes, we can!” and “yes, we will!”

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Blaming the Victims

Within one week from December 26, 2008 to January 1, 2009, three seemingly disconnected events occurred in which the victims were blamed for their misfortune.

In the Philippines, 56-year old Delfin De La Paz took his 18-year old daughter, Bambee, and 14-year old son, Bino, to the golf course to play on the day after Christmas. On that same day20and20time and on that same golf course and almost the same hole, Philippine cabinet Secretary Nasser Pangandaman Sr. (Department of Agrarian Reform) took his two sons, Hussein and Nasser Jr., to golf. Because De La Paz took offense at the Pangandamans overtaking him on the 3rd hole and teeing off on the 4th hole, he complained to the course marshall.

The complaint triggered a violent reaction from the Pangandamans and their bodyguard goons who proceeded to beat the living daylights out of Delfin and his 14-year old son, Bino, both at the 5th hole and at the golf clubhouse where the De La Pazes had retreated to after their initial mauling.

After the De La Pazes filed a police complaint about the incident, the Valley Golf Club Board of Directors voted to expel De La Paz from the club for allegedly instigating the “brawl”.

On that same day, half a world away, Israeli tanks invaded Gaza while Israeli planes bombed targeted sites throughout the Palestinian enclave. After 14 days, more than 900 Palestinians have been killed and more than 5,000 injured, mostly women and children. The reason for the invasion, according to Israel, was to stop the Hamas-fired rockets from hitting Israel, rockets which have inflicted relatively minimal damage (one killed).

Comedian Jon Stewart, who was born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, noted that Hamas had been firing its rockets for some time now and posed the question on his popular “Daily Show” faux newscast: “Why does Israel feel that they have react so strongly right now?” Answer: “I get it..Israel gets their bombing in before the January 20 “hope and change” deadline (Obama inauguration)...It’s like the civilian carnage Toyota-thon!”

In letters to the San Francisco Chronicle editor from pro-Israel readers, the common argument was this (from June Brott, Oakland): “If Hamas had stopped firing rockets and mortars into Israel, there would be no Israeli planes in the air, no Israeli soldiers on the ground, and – most important – no dead Palestinians”.

On the early morning of New Year ’s Day, a 22-year old African American male named Oscar Grant was on the BART Fruitvale Station in Oakland when a melee broke out. BART police who came on the scene ordered several black males to lay face down the ground. Grant conformed to the order, laid down face to the ground and placed his hands behind his back to be handcuffed. BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, a 26-year old white male, took out his pistol and shot and killed Grant in the back.

Almost two weeks after the killing, Mehserle has still not been charged with any offense and has not even been questioned by police authorities despite fierce outcry from the African American community.

Was race a factor? John Burris, the Grants’ family attorney, does not believe the white officer shot Oscar Grant because he was black but “I think the way he approached the situation in an aggressive way was based on race. If they were white kids, the officer might have asked them what was going on rather than throw them in handcuffs,” he said.

A Chronicle reader (Jerry White from San Leandro) pointed out that “Oscar Grant bears some responsibility for what happened to him. What decisions did he make? What actions did he take that led to the police being present on that BART platform? Was it an extra drink at a New Year’s Eve party that lowered his inhibitions?”

Why is there a propensity for many people to constantly blame the victim? If a girl is raped, why do many people immediately blame the girl for wearing a miniskirt or being flirtatious as if to justify the violence that was inflicted on her?

According to Wikipedia, victim blaming is partly due to people’s belief that the world has to be fair and therefore find it difficult, if not impossible, to accept a situation in which a person is unfairly hurt or killed.

This view dates back to the biblical Book of Job where Job is inflicted all manner of disaster and pain to test his personal faith in God. Job's friends tell him that he must have sinned to incite God's punishment and thus berate him for refusing to confess his sins although they do not have a clue as to what sin he committed. But they are certain he must have sinned to deserve his misfortune because God is just and would not allow such disaster to happen to an innocent and guiltless man.

Some theorists contend that victim blaming is a psychological protection device to inspire people to believe that a crime like rape happens only to those who deserve or provoke the assault.

If the De La Pazes had not been so uppity about golfing protocol, they would never have been beaten up by the Pangandamans. If the Palestinians in Gaza had not voted for Hamas in free elections allowing them to fire rockets into Israel, Gaza would not have been invaded and bombed and hundreds, if not thousands of Gazans would still be around. If Oscar Grant had not been a bit tipsy on that BART platform, he would still be alive today.

Stop blaming the victims. The world isn’t fair, bad things happen to good people and it isn’t psychologically safe to live in the state of denial.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Old Power, New Power

A man enters a crowded bus in Manila and then, after several stops, politely taps the shoulder of the guy in front of him. "Excuse me sir, but are you related to the Marcos family?" No, no, the man answers. After another stop, the man taps the shoulder again. "Excuse me sir, but are you related to anyone in the Marcos cabinet?” Negative, the guy says. After another stop, the man asks again. “Sir, how about anyone in the military?” “No” again was the irritated reply.

“Hey, why are you asking me all these personal questions?” The guy wants to know.

“Because, gaddamit," the man replies, "you've been standing on my foot for the last 30 minutes! Move, now!"

Jokes like this one abounded during the Marcos martial law regime. Behind the humor was always a kernel of truth and in this one, it was that powerful members of the Marcos family, the Marcos cabinet and the Marcos military were all untouchable and beyond the reach of the law.

For example, it was whispered in those martial law years that the son of a prominent Marcos cabinet member had killed the supposed “boy friend” of his sister who had allegedly mistreated her. The son was never charged nor prosecuted for murder and the incident was nev er even reported in the Marcos-controlled press.

Now, close to 23 years after Marcos was deposed, the press is free to report about such incidents. But there are new ways to control the news.

In a development that may or may not be connected to that whispered report, on May 27, 2002, Fr. Robert "the running priest" Reyes, was arrested by Quezon City police authorities and charged with libel for accusing Cagayan Rep. Jackie Ponce Enrile of killing his nephew, Ernest Robert Lucas, during the martial law years in 1975. Fr. Reyes was released two days later, after his parishioners at the University of the Philippines Diliman campus posted his 10,000-peso bail.

In the martial law years, Filipinos were powerless to deal with the abuses of those in power. Today, those in power still abuse their authority with regularity but Filipinos are not quite so powerless now.

The prime example of this old/new paradigm occurred on December 26, 2008 at the Valley Golf and Country Club in Antipolo, Rizal where 56-year old Delfin De La Paz and his 14 year old son, Bino, were savagely beaten by Mayor Nasser Pangandaman, Jr., Mayor of Masiu City, Lanao del Sur, and his bodyguard goons. The mayor was playing golf with his father, Secretary Nasser Pangandaman, Sr. of the Department of Agrarian Reform, when Delfin complained that they had breached golfing protocol by moving on to the next hole ahead of them.

Mayor Pangandaman was enraged by Delfin's temerity and punched him in the face and his goons joined in ganging up on him. The man's daughter, Bambee, and son, Bino, rushed to his aid but they were no match for the golfing goons. The 14-year old son knelt in front of the mayor and pled with him to stop beating his father. "Sorry na po, sorry na po...tama na...tama na po..." (We’re sorry sir, we're sorry sir. Please stop, please stop sir”) he begged. The man looked at the pleading boy and smacked him in the face, sending him reeling to the ground.

After the parties were separated, Delfin and his kids went to the clubhouse. As he awaited medical treatment, the mayor's group arrived and saw them. As Bambee reported "Once again my brother pleads, says sorry, and is crying. He was crying, for crissakes. But no. The relentless mayor still punches him in the face, and then sees my dad and goes after my dad again. Him and his friend pull my dad to the ground, pulls at his feet, and steps on him like he's dirt... I didn't even see my brother getting beat up."

When Bambee's mother and older brother arrived and rushed to help Delfin, the mayor's bodyguards pulled out their guns waiting for any excuse to fire. The clubhouse receptionists implored the family to leave "Maam, umalis na po kayo, may mga baril sila...Maam. ..umalis na po kayo please..." (Please, Maam, leave, they've got guns).

The De La Paz family left the golf course and after getting medical attention, filed a police complaint against the Pangandamans who, predictably, filed a counter-claim alleging that they were the victims of the de La Paz family.

This might have all been filed and forgotten except for one thin g. Bambee happens to be a blogger (viccisitude-decidido.blogspot.com) and she wrote of her horrifying experience and what her father and brother suffered. In a matter of hours, the blogosphere erupted with rage (she received 1172 comments).

Bambee’s report was emailed to thousands of Filipinos throughout the world and recipients emailed it to their own email lists. The major press got wind of the rage in the Internet and reported and commented on it. ABS-CBN even interviewed Delfin, along with his daughter and son, and he showed the bruises and welts all over his face and body and described their savage beating (check out youtube “Pangandaman”).

An online petition calling for the resignation of DAR Secretary Nasser Pangandaman, Sr. drew 1000 signatories immediately. An on-line game where you get to kick the Masui mayor in the butt (my highest total was 38,780 feet) was set up and became a popular hit. Google "Pangandaman" and you get 80 pages of references to the golfing incident.

There is no place in the Philippines or in the world where the Pangandamans can go now without being confronted by an outraged global Filipino community. They may have the old power at their beck and call but the De La Paz family has the new power of the blog.

This is Bambee’s plea to all: Please pray for my dad, my brother and for my whole family. Please pray that we get JUSTICE. Oh God, please, give these people what they deserve.

We hear you loud and clear.